The Transformation of Baucis and Philemon
A Queered Retelling of the Story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses
for my dear friend, Sarah: a retelling of “Baucis and Philemon” with only the minor change of making the titular couple a pair of aging lesbians
Once, in the country of Bithynia, when the world was young and gods still walked among men, there was a village nestled in a valley among the mountains. The valley floor was of a swampy character, often prone to flooding, but the people who lived there called it home all the same. They made their homes of reeds and thatch wherever a dry place could be found, and lived peacefully amongst themselves. Bithynia, however, is a wild, trousered country, much torn by constant war, as are all those lands outside the civilized world. Nonetheless, they kept the gods and their festivals, but their hearts were hardened to strangers, and their doors were kept locked at night against them.
It came to pass one day that Jupiter and Mercury were walking through the mountains nearby the village, disguised as a pair of travelers so as not to be noticed for what they were. As the sun withdrew beyond the edge of the sea and the constellations rose one by one, the pair determined to go into the village for the night and seek shelter there. They knocked on many doors and found them all barred against visitors, and those that did undo their locks closed them up again quickly with suspicious faces. As the two made their way through the town, Jupiter became increasingly troubled at this treatment of guests.
One home, however, received them: a humble abode on the edge of town, roofed with reeds and stems from the marsh. It was the home of Baucis and Philemon, who had been wedded there, and there had grown old together. Though they were poor, and though the mind of their neighbors was against their union, and though they had no children, they were happy by reason of accepting their lot in life, and by reason of having one another. So it was that this couple, all too aware of how little their neighbors cared for strangers and strange things, welcomed the gods into their home.
While Jupiter and Mercury paid respects to the humble gods of the household, the two women made up a couch for them, throwing their best blankets over it, though they had seen far better days once upon a time. Once the gods were comfortable, Baucis took to work kindling a fire and Philemon to stripping the leaves from vegetables. From a slab of meat hanging from a beam, Philemon then took a meager piece and set it to boiling while Baucis began to prepare sweet cakes for the visitors from the last of their grain. In the meantime, the two made conversation with their guests, in order that the wait while the meal cooked be all the more pleasant.
As the stew and the cakes cooked, Baucis put a table out before the gods, her hands trembling as she did so, and Philemon made it level: one of the three legs was unequal, but by means of a bit of broken pottery pushed beneath one leg, she prevented it from wobbling. On it were placed olives, both black and green, alongside cherries and radishes and a lump of cheese, and two eggs, hard boiled: all this was served in simple clay dishes. Afterward came the mixing bowl for wine and cups of wood. It was not long before the fire made the hot food ready, and soon the four were sat down to a meager feast. The wine was of no great vintage, and the meat was of no great tenderness, but the food was seasoned with glad faces and a richness of spirit.
As the evening went on, however, the aging pair began to notice an occurrence most queer: no matter how much wine their guests mixed for themselves, the clay bowl was never empty, and no matter how much stew their guests poured for themselves, the pot was always full. Baucis and Philemon fell to their knees and raised their palms to the sky in prayer, begging forgiveness. Instead of a dog to guard their door, the pair had a goose, and this they determined to sacrifice, but it ran too fast for the couple’s old bones, and the pair soon tired of chasing it. It was at this point that Jupiter stood and spoke to them:
“We are gods,” he said, “and this village shall be punished for its impiety, but the two of you have taken us in, and your kindness shall be rewarded. Come, climb the mountain with us, and see what your neighbors have wrought.”
And so the pair grabbed their walking sticks and climbed the mountain with the gods, Baucis’s hand wrapped in Philemon’s, Philemon’s hand entwined in Baucis’s. They leaned on their sticks and one another, and by the time they reached the mountain’s summit, the Sun had awoken and begun climbing the sky. As they turned, the pair clung to one another in trembling awe. Every house they had known was covered in the unclear waters of the marsh, save their own. But their roof was not theirs: rather, it was a roof of shining gold, supported on strong pillars of porphyry and travertine. As they turned back to stare at the gods, the son of Saturn said, “Ask of us what you will, virtuous women, and it shall be.”
The two turned to each other, eyes heavy with love, and Baucis said, “We would be priestesses of your temple, and live out our years together there in happiness, and we would not be parted by death: let us be taken in the same hour, so that neither do I have to see my wife dead, nor does Philemon have to see hers.”
And forever after, the two had charge of the temple, to which the gods were frequent visitors: at first, only Jupiter and Mercury alone, but soon the others followed, and by the end of their lives, childless Baucis and Philemon had the mightiest of families to care for them. As it happened one day, the two were standing on the steps of their home when Baucis saw leaves spring forth from Philemon, and Philemon saw leaves spring forth from Baucis. As the hard bark grew over them, they joined hands and, in one breath, declared: “Goodbye, my friend.”
The people of Bithynia, it is said, still care for the neighboring trees that grow together there, and hang garlands from the branches, and let the memory of the love and kindness of Baucis and Philemon live in their hearts.